>> Monday, October 31, 2011

So the word is the planet Earth has reached an estimated population of seven billion people today, or will reach it. It's a little funny, looking at the news item on MSNBC--headline, "A child is born and the world's population hits 7 billion", and then a little below it, we see: "Sinkhole opens in man's yard, swallows him"; +1, -1, seems like it would even out, although it actually turns out if you read the story, the man was ultimately disgorged by the devouring Earth. Or maybe that should be "ungorged", to coin a word, seeing as how he got his head out and the local fire department finished the extraction, the Earth didn't willingly give up its prey.

I used to play the roleplaying game Traveller back in the day. This probably seems like a digression, but it isn't really. Traveller, see, liked to break everything down into coded strings for what was purported to be convenience. On the one hand, this really was convenient, insofar as you could get a quick capsule summary of any character, strange creature, vehicle or exotic locale in one line; on the other hand, not so much insofar as good luck remembering what all the letters and numbers stood for and in what order. Anyway, when I heard the seven-billion-people news on NPR when the alarm radio went off, I couldn't help wondering if this would have jostled Earth's Universal Planetary Profile (a.k.a. Universal World Profile); turns out it doesn't, the fifth number of our serial code remains a nine for yet another few years. That's really not as big a deal as the sad fact our starport code remains at "H" if one is exceedingly generous, and will for the foreseeable future, but I suppose that is a digression.

Another thing when I was growing up, aside from the science fiction RPGs, was the fear of the inevitable population apocalypse. Soylent Green came out when I was a year old, so (naturally) I missed it in the theatre, but then it made regular appearances on television through my formative years and the big twist was already a cultural catchphrase before I was ten. That was the campy pop culture version, but there were more "serious" pop culture warnings still floating around through the seventies, like Paul R. Ehrlich's 1968 dire warning, The Population Bomb, which furthered a proud tradition going at least as far back as the 18th Century of promising the world was just a couple of newborn babies away from being completely fucked. This was, anyway, a pressing issue through the seventies and eighties; either we were going to get screwed over by the population being reduced to zero in fifteen-minutes-or-so because somebody mistook a flock of geese for a knife in the back or the next baby was going to reduce civilization to mass cannibalism.

It's a wonder we even made it out of the decade alive. This did not help my mopiness or nihilism as a teenager, no, it pretty much exacerbated my wishing I was dead, which I did quite a lot of in those days for all sorts of reasons. Thinking back on it also makes me wonder if some of the social and fiscal excesses of the '80s and '90s weren't inflamed by living like every day was our last up until the collapse of the August putsch and the realization civilization hadn't imploded, which was immediately followed by a sort-of-unwarranted celebratory party. There's probably some kind of half-baked sociological Big Idea in there somewhere, the kind of thing Tom Friedman or David Brooks could write a horribly simplistic and simply wrong book about; I'm not really interested in aiming that low, but if either one of those guys wants to buy the concept for a modest fee, I'm sure we can reach a nice figure (hell, I've been known to work for beer--just throwing that out there).

One of my best friends when I was in high school was enormously green, as were his brothers. They were all Boy Scouts and liked tromping around in the woods and expressing their sympathies for Greenpeace. They were all basically good eggs; my friend was the kind of guy who would literally walk out of a restaurant with a carryout order and give the food he'd just bought to the panhandler who hit us up for change at the front door (seriously, I saw him do this, he was a pretty awesome guy in those days). But one thing that was irritating was that there was a survivalist streak in those brothers that didn't flatter them. I suspect most people, including most right-wingers, think that survivalism is a fringe right kind of deal, Lyndon LaRouchers huddling in their bunkers with their guns and canned water waiting for the One World Government to swoop in with their black helicopters, smugly terrified that a civilization they don't actually have any use for is about to collapse; truth is, survivalism is really an apolitical form of cynicism and preemptive cashing-out, and whether or not most survivalist-types are right-wingers, there are plenty of left-wing, hard-Green survivalists out there stocking up for the day Mother Nature thwacks the human species back to the pre-paleolithic and then they can say their "I told you so"es to the grunting feral survivors who shouldn't have chopped down that tree or whose baby was the one that pushed the planet into an irrecoverable Malthusian tailspin.

Anyway, what was so unflattering about their attitude towards the imminent apocalypse back in the '80s was the same thing that's unflattering about any survivalist's attitude regardless of where they fall on a political spectrum: not the naïveté of it (or batshit craziness, if you want to be less tactful), but the smugness I already alluded to. It wasn't that these guys seemed reasonably confident everything was going to go blooie in their lifetimes that made them seem like asses on this one particular matter, but their smug confidence that when it did, they would be among the blessed(?) who came up out of their holes in the ground and did a happy dance on the human race's mass grave (or stood beside it tsk-ing and clucking, whatever). They were nice guys, and competent (they knew how to tie knots and start fires with rocks and everything), but there wasn't any special reason to think that, whatever they had set aside for the fall of mankind, they'd be among the remainder of humanity as opposed to some Mongolian goatherd or a bunch of dudes on a Micronesian island bypassed by prevailing winds. Anybody who's seen a Twilight Zone episode knows Fate's a bitch who doesn't need any particular good reason to fuck with you, and wouldn't it just-go-to-show if a wayward nuke just happened to land on your shelter, or all three of your backup can openers also broke, or whatever? Point being, aside from your planning and forethought, what makes you more special than about six billion other people who might or might not be luckier or more deserving? Oh, besides which, second point being: why would anyone especially want to survive the apocalypse, anyway, aside from being able to say "I told you so", I mean? Honestly, I'm not sure I'm up to burying everybody I know, plus I kinda wanted to know how Locke And Key was going to turn out, and if there aren't going to be any more issues, enh.

But, anyway, here we are, seven billion people and no rampant cannibalism, and nobody is worried about the collapse of civilization-as-we-know-it so much as they're worried about economic collapse (which would be terrible, but, silver lining: no rampant cannibalism, so there's that to be grateful for). My old friend and his brothers are people I haven't talked to since college, and I assume they all have families and jobs and have (now that they've grown up, or at least old) invested in human civilization after all. And mostly seven billion just doesn't seem like all that big a deal, whether it should be or not.

I'm looking at that generous "H" again, and I'm thinking that it's a good thing seven billion doesn't seem like a huge deal, and that overpopulation issues remain a regional problem (with global repercussions, to be sure), and not a straight-up-global crisis. Because, you know, another trope of the '70s and '80s was the SF premise that we'd ultimately have to "solve" the population crisis by stacking people on board space arks and sending the extra population away somewhere else to escape the burgeoning hordes of humanity, yada-yada-yada. And let's face it, we just don't have the spaceport capacity to build, launch and lade... oh for cryin' out loud, we can barely keep the International Space Station stocked up with freeze-dried ice cream and Tang, much less send any number of desperate refugees from an overwhelmed world to a hopeful new life anywhere, or even to fire them into the sun and lie and tell everybody they're now living... on a farm, yes, that's it, a space farm on a fabulous new planet with a big yard and plenty of fresh air. (There's probably some kind of half-baked solution for all of humanity's problems in there somewhere; if anyone wants to buy the concept for a modest fee, I'm sure we can reach a nice figure. Hell, I've been known to work for beer.)

But, yeah--a toast to the milestone.


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